Bela Fleck (BEY-Lah Fleck): See Curious, Creative Mind

R.J. DeLuke By

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Béla Fleck has taken his instrument—the banjo—to heights that seemed unimaginable prior to couple decades ago. There have been virtuoso players in its long history, but the sounds Fleck elicits through electronics, and the musical landscapes he treads upon, are groundbreaking.

He's got all that in his pocket. But as a twenty-something musician whose prowess was gaining notoriety with the bluegrass crossover band New Grass Revival, Fleck still had his heart set on other things. He had a wider musical vision. He was listening to bands of the day like Return to Forever: "I'm one of those people to whom fusion is not a dirty word," he says. He envisioned more. He dreamed of having a band that could bring that vision to life. A couple attempts didn't hit the mark and it began to feel like a pipe dream. Until a set of circumstances—fate, as it were—caused Fleck to cross paths with bassist Victor Wooten and his brother, percussionist/drummer Roy Wooten, known as Futureman because his arsenal was electronic and computerized, not standard traps drums.

Fleck also met harmonica virtuoso Howard Levy, who played piano and composed at a high level. The confluence resulted in The Flecktones, a band that has been wowing enthusiastic fans since its first rather impromptu concert on a Kentucky television station in 1988, and its first album, Béla Fleck & The Flecktones (Warner Bros., 1990). The result "went far better than I ever could have dreamed," Fleck admits to this day.

Levy left after a few years, replaced by saxophonist Jeff Coffin, but the band rolled on to immense success, including five Grammy Awards. After a hiatus, and the departure of Coffin for the vacant sax chair in the Dave Matthews Band, The original Flecktones is back together with a new recording in 2011, Rocket Science (eOne), and a world tour that has now extended into the spring of 2012. It's been nearly 20 years since the original four did these things, so it's been exciting for both fans and the band. The CD is full of the exploratory, flaming hybrid of all types of music: jazz, folk, rock, world, and bluegrass. One tune, "Life in Eleven," penned by Fleck and Levy, has been nominated for a 2012 Grammy for Best Instrumental Composition.

Fleck acknowledges that The Flecktones may be at an end when the tour is over, but could just as easily reconvene some time down the road. All the members have other things to pursue.

Primary among them is the banjo player, who performed the 2011world premiere of "Concerto for Banjo"—a classical piece that took him about a year to write—with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. A concert recording, and a DVD documentary on its creation, will be released in 2012 and Fleck will play the music live here and there with various orchestras. He's also recorded an album with pianist Marcus Roberts that will also come out in 2012 and involve a tour.

"Concerto for Banjo" isn't the first foray into classical music for the ever-curious Fleck. But it's the first time he has written that kind of music, note-for-note, for such a huge ensemble. In addition to banjo, the concerto is scored for piccolo, flutes, oboes, English horn, clarinets, bass clarinet, bassoons, contrabassoon, trumpets, trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion and strings. It was a tremendous challenge for the former wunderkind of the bluegrass genre. Fleck is also influenced by jazz and his band has played a lot of jazz festivals and clubs. He places a high value on improvisation in everything he does, including his noted exploration of African music, the Grammy Award-winning Throw Down Your Heart (Rounder, 2009).

Fleck is a New York City native who was transplanted to Boston during his young adulthood, eventually settling in Nashville. In the early 1960s, while watching the television show The Beverly Hillbillies, he heard virtuoso banjoist Earl Scruggs and it struck home. But while he didn't get his first instrument until 1973, he quickly made up for lost time. After high school, he moved to Boston to play with Jack Tottle's Tasty Licks and, by 1979, he had his first solo recording,Crossing the Tracks (Rounder Records).

In 1981 he was invited to join New Grass Revival, lead by Sam Bush on mandolin, fiddle and vocals. The band was a big success, merging bluegrass, rock, folk and country. Then, Fleck's serendipitous meetings with the Wootens and Levy occurred in the latter part of the '80s and The Flecktones sprang forth.

All About Jazz: Rocket Science consists of all-new material?

Béla Fleck: Yeah, but on tour we're also doing some older stuff. About half-and-half. It's not so much that we reworked [older songs], it's that we all play a bit differently after 17 years of not playing together. We put most of the energy into creating the new music. The old music is still fresh to us because we hadn't played it for so long. It's fresh to the audience because everybody plays so differently on their solos. We haven't really rearranged the older stuff.


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